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Ellis: When COVID-19 Collides with Flu Season

By Glenn Ellis

Back in February, government officials expressed disbelief, as they announced that as many as 69,000 people might die from the impending COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, few of us had been paying attention to how deadly the flu season is on any given year.

When we hear that number, most of us thought this was the worst-case scenario. Think about it, we couldn’t imagine how hard this pandemic could hit the United States. The flu season in 2017- 2018 season resulted in 61,000 deaths.

Now, here we are over five months later, and the COVID-19 pandemic has taken more than 180,000 lives in the United States.

Making matters worse, now we have enough data to be reasonably convinced that COVID-19 ain’t the flu … it’s a whole lot worse.

In fact, not only does the evidence tell us that COIVD-19 is a much more deadly disease, we are starting to get proof that you can get re-infected, even after you may have just had it and recovered.

Recently, a man in Hong Kong was the first person confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus a second time! This is big. I’m talking a re-infection, not the lingering effects of the first infection. Some experts are taking comfort in the fact that the man was asymptomatic with the second infection. Does that mean that the immunity he had from the first infection kept him from getting “sick” with symptoms the second time around?

It is too early to reach any conclusions, but this turns a lot of the common thinking on COVID-19 on its head. So, if a person gets COVID, survives and recovers; this saying that the “immunity” he is thought to have is short-lived. Immunity to the common cold, which is in the coronavirus family, typically lasts only three to six months. Can you imagine the possibility of getting COVID-19 twice; or three times; or maybe even four times in a year?

Think about all of the science and research that has been based on the notion that the virus leaves survivors with antibodies that is now at the center of much of the research efforts going on around the world. High stakes were riding on the promise of a breakthrough in fighting this pandemic through discoveries tied to antibody research.

On top of that, this is going to be a very challenging flu season. Hospitals and medical workers are already strained, and at wits end, as we continue to see spikes in infection rates of COVID-19 around the country. Will your doctor be baffled if you have fever and a bad cough? This could be a worse-case scenario for doctors and healthcare providers across this nation. The impact on poor and communities of color would be devastating. “The need to try to rule out (COVID-19) will be intense,” says Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

It is important to point out that to be “co-infected” with the flu and another respiratory virus (like COVID-19) is relatively rare. A University of Glasgow research study between flu and other viruses suggested that co-infections can actually lead to protective effects. For example, being infected with one type of flu virus, influenza A, seems to reduce the chance of catching a cold (a coronavirus family member).

Many doctors are recommending that patients get their flu shot in late September or early October, so protection can last throughout the flu season, which typically ends around March or April. The vaccine lasts about six months. The Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) recommends people get a flu vaccine no later than the end of October – because it takes a few weeks for the vaccine to become fully protective.

Just wondering, how many of y’all have stopped to think about the fact that we are actually going to be facing a flu season while wrapped in the middle of a pandemic? Think about it. Both the flu, and COVID-19 have respiratory problems as one of the major symptoms. How will doctors be able to know which one to treat you for? Will we need to be tested for both, even if you have only one? IF they come up with a COVID-19 vaccine, will it work for the flu? Or will you still have to get a flu shot?

These are real questions; they deserve real answers. We should all be seeking out good sources of credible information to help us with the many difficult decisions about our health that awaits us all.

Whatever you do, or don’t do, just remember: “Flu vaccine can prevent the flu; we’re still working on a coronavirus vaccine. They’re separate.”

Glenn Ellis, MPH is a Visiting Scholar at The National Bioethics Center at Tuskegee University and a Harvard Medical School Research Bioethics Fellow. He is author of Which Doctor? and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information visit: www.glennellis.com.